Martin Rev, 2005
Photo: Fluxo on Flickr / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Suicide’s Music in Film: An Interview with Martin Rev

Suicide’s music is used in films from the comedy Mistress America to the documentary The Red Orchestra. Martin Rev shares memories of the films and the sci-fi that he and Alan Vega loved.

Martin Rev, one of music’s greatest pioneers, is known for both his solo efforts and for being the man behind the electronic instrumentation of the now iconic band—Suicide. Suicide’s music can best be classified into five categories: city music, electronic rockabilly, pure dance, social commentary, and 1950s-style love ballads. Suicide are also classified as one of the first punk bands in New York and were among the first to associate the term with music. Suicide’s lead singer and Rev’s righthand man, Alan Vega, unfortunately, passed away in 2016. While their legacy is incredibly impactful and becomes even more so by the day, Suicide’s recognition was significantly delayed. Despite being paired to tour with legendary bands like the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Cars during their prime in the 1970s and 1980s, the music of Suicide was so drastically different in comparison to these groups that audiences often ended up erupting into riots. No one had heard anything like this before. 

I recently had the rare opportunity to speak with Rev. Ever so cool; he wore his trademark sunglasses and a black sleeveless shirt as he casually sat in a room lit by a large, single light bulb resting behind him. The ambiance of our encounter, whether intentional or not, further adds to the mystique of the musician. Rev offered insights into the growing popularity of Suicide’s discography in film, his upbringing, creative process, and the history of his music.

The rise of Suicide and the fall of the Velvet Underground went hand in hand in 1970. Much like the famous Brian Eno quote that “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band,” the same can be said about Suicide’s self-titled album. You and Alan Vega combined your diverse musical interests to create the sound of the future. Given the futuristic qualities of songs like “Spaceship” and “Space Blue Bambo”, were sci-fi films an influence on your upbringing? 

I grew up seeing many sci-fi movies in my teenage years. Of course, I would watch things like The Twilight Zone on TV at least once a week. In terms of movies, they would play things from the ’40s and the ’50s on television.

When I met Alan, he had already read quite a bit of sci-fi and was really into it. I’m sure he saw a lot of sci-fi movies, too as a lot of them were contemporary with his growing years – not that we’re not still growing, even Alan—may he be blessed. We each had different connections, but sci-fi was definitely in the mental parameters of everyone then. Even the designs of cars in the late ’50s and ’60s reflected futuristic sci-fi so much in terms of the tailfins and the look in general.

Now, I think we’re living with a lot of the things they talked about in the sci-fi of that time. Everything seems so incredibly futuristic that it can attack the imagination. A lot of [the technology from sci-fi] we’re already in, and we’re heading toward more of it. This can be an unfortunate thing if it’s not handled correctly. So far, it seems like it hasn’t been handled correctly. Sci-fi now is not what it was then, but in the ’50s and the ’60s, that was the thing, man. People were imagining what would happen because they could feel it, and authors and filmmakers were ahead of their time.

Growing up during a high point in the history of counterculture with shared disapproval of the Vietnam war, was Easy Rider an important film for you and Vega? 

I’m sure Alan saw that picture. I saw it and certainly related to it as it was very much a part of the times and the war in Vietnam for many years. I think one picture we found closer to what we were feeling and doing at that time was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. It came out around the time that we first started. It was maybe within a year of the beginning of Suicide. I think he [Jodorowsky] was feeling a lot of the things that we were feeling. It was in the same kind of spiritual ambiance and extremism. We didn’t see ourselves as being extremists, but the film also showed experimentation and innovation. We didn’t set out to be innovators either, but we set out to do what we felt we needed to do to express ourselves.

Given that El Topo was famously played for midnight screenings at New York City movie theaters in the ’70s, were you also interested in any of the other midnight movies of that era? 

Filmmakers like John Waters and David Lynch, yeah, their movies were all in that scene. I don’t think I saw everything of theirs. I saw a few films from each, maybe two each, but that was all part of that period, especially the early ’70s.

Alan Vega was an admirer of Elvis Presley, troubled youth films like Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, and writers Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. You were a student of local New York jazz legend Tony Williams with a fascination for electric keyboards. The list of musicians that you guys influenced is incredible, with Kraftwerk, Primal Scream, LCD Soundsystem, Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, and Nitzer Ebb, to name a few (Nobakht, 2005). Speaking of influence, how did film influence you?

I saw films like The Young Savages, The Hustle, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and This Sporting Life in the theater as a teenager. They were moving because they were close to my upbringing and my environment. They were New York-oriented, except for This Sporting Life, which is such a powerful film. I also like the black-and-white element of these films. The Pawnbroker was another film in that realm. I don’t know what it was specifically, but many of these films showed things I grew up around. The Young Savages, of course, had the gangs. Boxing and sports were in Requiem for a Heavyweight, and many of these films were set in New York City, which is where I was born and raised.

You also mentioned an interest in the film noir genre. What attracts you to those films?

A lot of film noir was a little before my time. The filming was great, and I would watch them once in a while on TV. There were a lot of them in those days. You know, there were gangster movies, James Cagney pictures, and many with lesser-known actors. A lot of them would show the bridges and piers of New York.

On the Waterfront is another great movie from that time period that I enjoy watching. I just watched it again a couple of years ago. With film noir they were usually set in France and New York. We didn’t have the internet then, so I didn’t have a broad selection of films—especially French films. The few French films that came to the city were shown in art theaters, but I was familiar with the general look of their films and some of the better-known names like Jeanne Moreau or Juliette Gréco.

While the fascinating story of your band has been told in two different books,  your relationship to film has largely been neglected. Of Suicide’s music used in film soundtracks, nearly every occurrence comes post-2000. The exceptions are the rare French production Des Nouvelles du bon Dieu’s use of “Ghost Rider”, the Rollins Band cover of “Ghost Rider” in The Crow, and the inclusion of the hauntingly epic masterpiece “Frankie Teardrop” by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for In a Year with 13 Moons. What inspired “Frankie Teardrop” and how did it end up in Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons

“Frankie Teardrop” was something we had been doing for seven years, like all the other songs on the record, before we recorded it in 1977. Alan had a lyric for it that we were using when we played it for concerts, and when it came time to record, we just laid it down and recorded it live in the studio like all the other tracks on the album. He had seen an article in a newspaper, and he thought that was the way to go. He wrote the lyrics based on a story of a person who unfortunately ended up just like Frankie. We saw many of those kinds of stories in the papers during that time. It was part of the ’70s new industrial age or the beginning of the end of the industrial age. In a Year with 13 Moons was the only film to license “Frankie Teardrop.” It got an incredible response from many critics, but it’s a special baby in terms of films.

 In a Year with 13 Moons is a powerful film that explores a transgender woman’s struggles. It was also made as a meditative exercise for Fassbinder’s loss of his partner, Armin Meier, who tragically committed suicide, much like the subject of “Frankie Teardrop”. This makes its incorporation in the film even more evocative. What do you think of this film and its use of your music?

In the last few years, many licenses are being requested for film and multiple times for the same songs. There have also been requests for solo tracks. They usually send me clips showing how our music will be used, or they describe it. Occasionally, I can’t get with how they want to use our music. The earliest one that I can remember was Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons. When they asked us, it was the same year our first record came out in 1977. That was a great surprise because we never expected our music would be in anybody’s film. I don’t think we had even been to Germany yet, but we did end up touring in Germany maybe a year later. I remember going, “Wow, this guy wants to use ‘Frankie Teardrop'”. That was the very first one. 

The imagery of Fassbinder’s film The American Soldier and the contorted dance moves of the New York punk/No Wave scenes became the inspiration for Robert Longo’s “Men in the Cities” photography series, and Suicide, one of the first punk bands, inspired Fassbinder as he made In a Year with 13 Moons.

Glenn O’Brien, Edo Bertoglio, and Maripol’s Downtown 81 further explored the connection between your band and the art world as the film showcases a young Jean-Michel Basquiat strolling through New York City trying to make ends meet as an up-and-coming artist. Other musicians featured include Kid Creole and the Coconuts, DNA, Debbie Harry, and Walter Steding. Were you linked to the No Wave scene of that time?

We were right there and parallel to it as we played at the Mudd Club and those venues in the city, but I think we hit the New York club scene a little earlier. The No Wave scene came after us by a few years. Basquiat, you could say, was in the next generation. They say generations often come every 3-4 years, especially in the arts. I never knew Basquiat personally, but the No Wave people became familiar to us later with those like Lydia Lunch and James Chance.

We became much closer to them a few years later as they were eventually sometimes playing on the same stages and the same bills as us. At that time, I think Basquiat was still more of a street artist and starting to play with his band, Gray, at the Mudd Club and what not. At that time we played a lot at Max’s Kansas City and made our first record. I’m not sure if Basquiat ever played Max’s or CBGBs like we did. We were all in the same environment/scene, but we never touched personal base.

There were also several filmmakers in that scene parallel to us, but we never recorded or filmed anything with them. We got to know a few of the filmmakers socially. We all got along well, but we weren’t really a part of that.

 Downtown 81 is among the best examples of capturing a city as a character on the screen, much like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Jacques Tati’s Playtime, or Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Concluding with your hypnotizing rhythms balanced by the mesmerizing vocals of Vega, Downtown 81 comes to a remarkable close as Basquiat drives off in a car with SAMO graffiti on its side to the tune of “Cheree”. 

While “Cheree” is a dreamlike proclamation of a man’s love for a woman, Downtown 81 radiates a similar illusory account. It documents an incredibly interconnected New York art scene, seen as a land of opportunity for many American dreamers with aspirations similar to you and Vega. Glenn O’Brien, the writer of Downtown 81 and longtime GQ “Style Guy”, had a public access television show in New York that was a hangout of sorts for musicians and artists during the time Downtown 81 was filmed named TV Party. Were you familiar with that crowd?

I didn’t spend a lot of time watching things in those days. I never watched TV Party, but I would have. I was more focused on my work, living, survival, and searching for joy in it all, you might say. Glenn first came to my knowledge in 1980 when he wrote a review under his column, Glenn O’Brien’s Beat, in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine for my first solo record—Martin Rev. It was a very insightful and astute review. At that time, many reviewers didn’t understand the record because it didn’t sound like Suicide. Of course, some did, but Glenn’s imagery struck me right away. I said to myself who is this?

He wrote like an imagist and was a great writer. He wrote about every track, one after the other, and what it gave off in terms of visual imagery. It was one of the best reviews I ever had, so after that, I remembered the name, Glenn O’Brien. It makes sense that he would have been involved in selecting the music. The people working for him to clear songs and coordinate everything contacted our manager Marty Thau (who makes an appearance in Downtown 81) and me. They wanted to use “Cheree”, so they made a licensing deal and that was it.

Around that time, Wax Trax! Records was becoming hugely influential for industrial music. Their storefront in downtown Chicago was the main source of inspiration for the musical selections of John Hughes’ classic ’80s films. What was your relationship like with Wax Trax? 

Well, there hasn’t been any relationship for many years. We did one license for the album A Way of Life. We were licensing that album in different territories. We had one for Europe, and I believe Wax Trax was for either part of the US or the whole US. They moved to New York, or at least they had been there several years ago. They moved their office to lower downtown New York. Other than that, the license has since expired and c’est ça as they say.

Apart from your music, the art of Suicide includes Vega’s Dadaist light sculptures, which Julian Schnabel praised in the introduction to Vega’s monograph 100,000 Watts of Fat City, and the paintings by your wife, Mari, that bring your solo album covers for See Me Ridin’ and Les Nymphes to life. Were there any other notable fans of Suicide from the early days?

The other journalist who unfortunately didn’t stay with us for very long, the all-time great journalist that everyone would acknowledge at that time, was Lester Bangs. Lester wrote the notes for the Half-Alive cassette package. My solo record came out in 1980, and then Half-Alive came out in 1981 with Lester’s review, which was great. It was different great, but very on point about us and the city. Lester passed very soon after. He dug us a lot before we even recorded. He would see us at shows and sometimes come into our dressing room. That’s the way Lester was, though. He was already on that scene. He wasn’t just following record bands to promote.

Martin Rev, 2005 | Photo: Fluxo on Flickr / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly, most of the use of Suicide’s music in film is within the last ten years and comes from productions under the indie powerhouse, A24. Examples include the use of Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Dream Baby Dream” in American Honey, the original version of “Dream Baby Dream” in Woodshock, “Cheree” in 20th Century Women, and “Surrender”/ your solo song “I Heard Your Name” in Hot Summer Nights. Tell us about your relationship with A24. 

The fact they are based out of New York and that they are an indie studio could be why we’ve collaborated. It wasn’t necessarily why I agreed to it, though. It struck me when we started to get more and more of these requests as we were out of everything for so long regarding anything mainstream: record companies, labels, etc. When this sort of stuff started happening, it was kind of like the world turning over a bit and changing.

Suicide was now being requested in ways that we had never seen. The way I look at it is if [using Suicide’s music] represents a change in the world, that’s always good, but I don’t think it will represent any ideal utopia from that. With the movies, I think the tracks often end up working very well, and it seems others think so, too, based on the feedback. These movies are aesthetic works. They’re artworks, in a sense, for better or for worse.

 The characters of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Greek production, Attenberg, treat the music of Suicide as a manifesto of sorts for their lives. Your music also inspires film characters to dance with examples by Naomi Watts in the terrifying Summer of Sam film The Wolf Hour, listening to “Ghost Rider”, and Chloe Sevigny/Natasha Lyonne listening to “Touch Me” in the dark comedy Antibirth.

My favorite use of your music is the inclusion of “Dream Baby Dream” in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Lola Kirke finds her true self and throws her briefcase, a symbol of the elitist literary society she has joined, into the water and starts her own magazine while your song plays. This was the perfect way of showing she would follow her personal aspirations instead of being constrained by those of her peers. To me, this is what your music is all about. Tell us about the concept of Suicide, and do you have any favorite uses of your music in film?

The concept was just to express ourselves as artists. When Alan and I met, we were already very committed and well-steeped in our visual and musical arts. Alan also very much wanted to be a performing artist, and we just continued from where we left off. Only now, we were doing it in complicity in a group format with vocals and electronics.

We were also doing what was based on necessity at that time. We didn’t have the spaces, instruments, and people other groups had, so that was Suicide. Whatever we adapted through was a development of where we were before. We were taking into account how we felt it could be best framed on a stage in more of a rock setting. At that time, rock music was the only genre that felt so open, probably because it was the youngest. It was still open in the ’70s, and it felt like you could almost do anything because it hadn’t yet reached its total extraction. That’s why it made sense for us to go in that direction.

At that time [in the ’70s/’80s], there weren’t many requesting to use our work. Certainly, after the ’90s and after the millennium, there have been a lot of requests/uses. Of course, who can keep up though? I wouldn’t say I have a favorite. A lot of the films that include our music are also from different countries like Greece, Ireland, Spain, France, etc. After all the years of Suicide being out there, it’s nice to see. I think it’s great. I love the fact that the directors are the ones who are choosing our music.

The global appeal of your music speaks volumes, and there are too many uses in film to name in this interview. You also experimented in film scoring for Stefan Roloff’s The Red Orchestra. The documentary chronicles the amazing true story of a Nazi resistance group of the same name. Alan Vega also had a brief stint in film scoring for French filmmaker Phillipe Grandrieux’s Sombre, exploring a serial killer’s internal struggles and failed attempt at love. Can you speak to your creative process in designing a film score?

The Red Orchestra is the only film that I can remember scoring the whole film in comparison to licensing tracks that have already been recorded, like we talked about. I had known Stefan Roloff for several years before I worked on the music for his film. We collaborated with videos that he had and tracks that I had. We were introduced by Marty Thau. We thought we would make a great collaboration, and we did. The Red Orchestra is very personal to Stefan. His father was a part of that group. He asked me late in the film’s production if I could do the music. At the time, he was working with his editor.

It came very easily to me. I did the music in about twenty minutes. I just went to the keyboard and did it. I wasn’t doing the music to specific scenes. Stefan described the scenes to me, but I wasn’t timing the music. He said I’ll do that after. He told me to just give him tracks. It was all impressions, and impressions came very easily to me for something like that. Everyone seemed very pleased afterward, and the result worked very well for me. I don’t know how the process worked for the film that Alan scored. I imagine it was probably not that difficult for him, either.

An interest in your work is at an all-time high, and a new generation is ready to embrace the music of Suicide. My theory is that young filmmakers are looking to their parents’ music collections for inspiration in selecting songs for their soundtracks due to the resurgence in vinyl and the visual media that features the work of Suicide. Given that the story of Suicide is such a journey, would you ever be interested in doing a documentary or a biopic? 

There was one company who did a little filming of us. They had done this film about Arthur Lee and his California band, Love, from the ’60s. We were in London in 2007, and that was the first time I met Kris Needs. The filmmakers had approached Kris, and he coordinated filming an interview that they wanted to use in their idea. When they reapproached us a couple of years later, they wanted to make a full-fledged documentary, and I didn’t really jump at it.

The reality of doing photo sessions, interviews, books, and documentaries is that it is very time-consuming, so you really have to want to do it and make sure it’s not taking away from other things because you don’t have that much extra time. When they described the documentary, they told us they wanted to do a lot of filming and go around New York with us. I totally respect documentaries, but if I’m working on something and have to take three or four hours out of my day up to three times a week, it adds up. For some, it works out perfectly. For me, things like that might work at certain times, but most of the time, I’m too involved in working on my music projects.

Younger generations are looking to Suicide for fashion influence, as you both always looked cool in what you did. Shane Gonzales’ Midnight Studios Fall/Winter 2019 collection is heavily influenced by the imagery of Alan Vega. Marc Jacobs also incorporated the use of “Cheree” and “Dream Baby Dream” in two separate advertisements, starring Kaia Gerber, for his Daisy fragrance. Raf Simons’ Autumn/Winter 2001-2002 “Riot! Riot! Riot! collection also features patches on garments, using the images of a flyer for Suicide “punk music mass” performances from the ’70s in the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center in New York City. What are your thoughts on your music/image being used in this way?

Ads can be artwork, too, in a limited way. I haven’t started a perfume/clothing company or given up music to go into acting [laughs]. Sometimes people get so well known that their manager says let’s get you into film, like they did with Elvis. You don’t have to be that well known to do it, but that’s the whole idea on the commercial end—spreading your recognition as far as you can and making bread by selling something.

Usually, if someone picks Suicide, it means that the movie or advertisement usually tends to be more thought out and maybe a little more out of the ordinary. With ads, you don’t expect them to have that same out-of-the-ordinary quality, but sometimes I’m just blown away.

Are you working on any new projects?

I work daily. The studio is where I live at this point, wherever I am for an extended period. Everything I’m satisfied with is a candidate to be included in a new project, so it’s ongoing. That’s what I do.”

Works Cited

Needs, Kris. Dream Baby Dream: Suicide: A New York Story. Omnibus Press. December 2015.

Jones, Emma. “The Velvet Underground: The Band That Made an Art of Being Obscure”. BBC News. 14 October 2021.

Nobakht, David. Suicide: No Compromise. SAF. October 2004.

Tobias, Scott. “In a Year with 13 Moons“. AV Club. 20 April 2004.

Longo, Robert and Price, Richard. Robert Longo: Men in the Cities: Photographs 1976-1982. Schirmer/Mosel. 2005.